Go back to article: Refrigerating India

Gendered household practices and time pressures on women

The changing expectations surrounding the appearance and practices of the ‘traditional’ woman has a unique legacy in Kerala. A large proportion of the Hindu population of Kerala (the Nair caste and portions of the Ezhava caste) practiced matrilineality (marumakkathayam) well into the twentieth century (Gough, 1962). Inheritance followed the woman’s matriarchal kinship. Men, women and children in the matrilineal lineage lived together in joint family households. The husbands, or conjugal partners, were regarded as visitors and shared a separate room in the house. Senior men in these matrilineal households exercised influence in family decision making, but the undisputed leader of the household was the senior male (karnivar), usually either the senior female’s brother or uncle. Younger women had full responsibility for housework and family care. From the pre-teen years, young women were put under the supervision of senior women and were assigned household tasks. Young women were expected to perform all domestic services and to give the male head of household ‘obedience and devotion’ (Gough, 1962).

Matriliny came under pressure from Hindu patrilineal traditionalists, colonial policies and Kerala modernists in the early twentieth century (Wilhite, 2008a). By mid-century, matriliny was waning and a patrilineal family structure was firmly in place. A practice was established in which brides, accompanied by dowry, took up residence with husbands and their extended families. New brides became apprentices to their mother-in-law, where they learned the family’s traditions for things like child rearing and food preparation. Until the mid-twentieth century, it was fairly common that one or more siblings and their families would become permanent fixtures in the paternal household. In recent decades, the more common practice is that newly married young couples take up residence in their parent’s household soon after the marriage and remain there until the birth of the first child, when they move out and establish their own home.

In the more stable joint family households of the matrilineal past, while younger women did the bulk of the work, there was nonetheless sharing of housework and child care among all the women of the household. In today’s nuclear family, chores that were previously shared by the women of the joint household now fall on the shoulders of the wife alone. A clear finding from my research in the early 2000s was that only a very few husbands participated in household chores or child care. Increasing educational opportunities and more openness to women working outside the home had led to a steady increase in women in the workforce, yet women still had full responsibility for housework. This resulted in increased time pressures on wives who had to compress all of their household chores into early mornings and late evenings. Time stress made an important contribution to an increased interest in the refrigerator and other ‘convenience’ appliances such as washing machines, mixmasters and microwave ovens. Graph 1 shows the ownership of the refrigerator and other convenience appliances, contrasting differences in ownership according to whether the female head of household works or not. Families with wives working full time outside the home were more likely to have all of the convenience appliances, including the refrigerator.

Some description

Graph 1: Differences in ownership of convenience appliances between households with female heads of household working outside the home and households with female heads of household not working outside the home, based on a survey of 408 households in four neighbourhoods in Trivandrum, Kerala, in 2002 (Wilhite, 2008a)

Of all the convenience appliances, the refrigerator has the greatest time-saving potential. This time-saving ‘script’ (Akrich, 2000) was beginning to exert influence on household food practices in Kerala the early 2000s. The refrigerator’s potential to store cooked foods and thus save time in subsequent meal preparation was beginning to erode culturally-embedded ideas about healthy food. Chavita, a 25-year-old housewife with two kids said this about refrigeration and reheating of food: “These ideas are changing. Now people are working and going to school in the morning. There is no time to prepare every meal” (Wilhite, 2008b, p 102). In the early 2000s many young married women were routinely making food in bulk and reheating portions for forthcoming meals. There was a growing interest in frozen and other ready-made foods. Our Hindu Nair neighbour Anil would wring his hands in consternation every time I stopped at a bakery and bought a somosa (vegetable roll), or other prepared food. This aversion was not shared by his wife Deeba, who was a teacher at a local elementary school. She did all of the cooking for their two children as well as for Anil’s parents and grandmother, who were members of the household. In order to save time in cooking for this large family, Deeba would occasionally buy ready-cooked foods from the local bakery, store them in the refrigerator and then serve them with dinner or place them in the kids’ lunch boxes for the next day. This led to constant bickering by Anil and the older members of the family and was one of a series of conflicts which eventually led Deeba and the children to move out and take up residence in a separate house.

Figure 2

Colour photograph of indian women preparing to serve food in a kitchen

Preparations for an elaborate meal with members of the joint family

Interviews with families whose head of households were in their twenties and early thirties confirmed that ideas about healthy food were changing and that the full potential of the refrigerator for saving time in meal preparation was beginning to be exploited. Many of the younger families interviewed regularly prepared food in bulk and served it up after it had been stored for up to several days in the refrigerator or freezer. 

Component DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.15180/180903/006